A Swift-boating in Jersey

LESSONS IN JOURNALISTIC OBJECTIVITY

I became well acquainted with political spin during the many years I covered New York City politics as a newspaper reporter. Yet, even with that background, I’ve been a little dizzied by the brazenness of what the spin doctors have been dishing up this year in the race for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey. The story raises important issues for the practice of journalism.

As a cub reporter at a small New Jersey newspaper more than a quarter-century ago, I chronicled the last hurrah of a local political boss who was famously reelected mayor of Union City the day after he was sentenced to seven years in prison for taking payoffs. The late Bill Musto, last of the New Jersey bosses who could trace their political lineage to Frank (“I am the Law”) Hague, was, on one level, a most compassionate man. He counseled constituents all day long, and many of them loved him. He was a powerful, respected state senator, and New Jersey’s senior legislator. But Musto also took bribes from a local construction company controlled by the mafia.

A subplot in the story of Musto’s downfall has recently emerged in the race for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, a seat that has been in the Democratic column, which national Republican strategists hope to gain in a close battle for control of the Senate. Robert Menendez, the Democrat appointed to the vacant Senate seat in January by Governor Jon Corzine, was the twenty-four-year-old secretary of the Union City Board of Education in 1978 when he noticed that the board’s president had slipped through huge cost overruns to a builder doing school construction. Menendez insisted that the board vote on these overruns, which forced the matter into the open. I wrote about the overruns and the bogus reason given for issuing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments. Later, Menendez assisted federal prosecutors in their investigation of the overruns, which, it turned out, were used to fund payoffs and not school construction.

Menendez performed honorably, testifying numerous times in secret before a grand jury, and later in public at the trial. It took a personal toll, since Menendez had to break the political machine’s code of loyalty and turn against Musto, whom many said was like a father to him. Menendez took a risk in testifying because, as reported at the time, the construction company in question had been controlled by a mafioso suspected of being a hit man. The prosecutors were surprised to get such help from Menendez, who was not implicated or even suspected in the wrongdoing, and they praised him privately and in public.

So I was surprised when Thomas Kean Jr., the Republican candidate for the Senate who is opposing Menendez, twisted the story to make it seem as if Menendez had been part of the kickback scheme and had testified only to save himself from prosecution. It was false-a smear-and some of the “facts” used by Kean, the son of New Jersey’s popular former governor and co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, were just wrong.

Of course, Menendez’s campaign quickly pointed this out, but local newspapers treated Kean’s accusations in the time-honored way: reporting piecemeal what the two sides said and letting the readers decide for themselves. Had I known nothing about the story, I might well have reported it the same way.

I wrote a freelance story in the Newark Star-Ledger that explained, as best I could, what really happened, based on what I had reported years before for the Hudson Dispatch and the Associated Press, and on follow-up interviews. On the same day, the New York Times covered similar ground in a story that originated when a Republican operative made the mistake of contacting the best reporter I know, Jim Dwyer, to try to interview him for a “documentary” about Menendez. Dwyer, who followed me on the Union City beat for the Dispatch, quickly determined that the filmmaker was affiliated with the Kean campaign. He wrote a story in which all four federal prosecutors in the Musto trial were quoted as shooting down Kean’s attempt to use the case to cast a shadow over Menendez. Both articles ran on the morning of the first televised debate between the two candidates.

One would think that having the four federal prosecutors support Menendez’s account in articles written by the two reporters who covered the case most closely would have put an end to the matter. But in a follow-up story, Dwyer quoted national Republican strategist Matt Leonardo saying the Kean campaign would continue its plans to make a documentary about Menendez, modeled on the 2004 presidential election’s “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” attack on Senator John Kerry.

Leonardo didn’t dispute the information about Menendez in the articles Dwyer and I wrote, but he called it a “set of views,” and said that others held different views. If this reflects the modus operandi of national political strategists, it means that journalists will have to be much more aggressive in their reporting to ensure that the electorate is not confused or misinformed by “fair and balanced coverage” that simply offsets false or deliberately misleading information from one side with denials from the other. In the Menendez story as in others, there is an objective set of facts about what actually happened. Reporting them, rather than simply offering two sets of contradictory views, should be the journalistic goal.

I’m not one of those who believe journalists should give up on objectivity to pursue truth: The two do not exclude one another. Given the bitter partisanship that marks our era and the use of the Internet and broadcast media, traditional journalistic tools are needed more than ever. But objectivity doesn’t mean being taken for a fool. There has long been an obligation to investigate or screen out dubious statements, and to try to find out what really happened.

It’s tempting for reporters and editors to ignore that obligation. The passive, “he said/she said” form of reporting won’t result in angry e-mails, phone calls from readers, or loss of access to sources. Candidates won’t denounce the paper as biased. Furthermore, given daily deadlines and competitive pressures, there isn’t much time to thoroughly investigate. This is where the shrinkage of the news staff is hurting readers and democracy itself. News organizations still do the marquee projects aimed at winning prizes they can brag about in house ads. But day-in, day-out reporting has suffered because staffs are smaller. It takes time to check out, say, a court case that played out decades ago.

Editors face a difficult decision. I’d be more inclined to wait and run down candidates’ accusations were I still in that seat. Of course, that could mean having the story break first on blogs (which would claim the story was being covered up) and in competing papers.

Against such equivocating, GOP strategists are apparently betting that a television advertising campaign will trump any reporting major news organizations might do. I talked on the phone with Kean campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker, asking about the false accusations and whether she thought the episode might hurt the campaign’s credibility down the line. She stuck with the original script, portraying it as suspicious that Menendez testified numerous times before the grand jury. “Going before a grand jury on twelve separate occasions doesn’t make you courageous,” she said in a passionate tone, and added at another point, “Tom Kean has never been in front of a grand jury twelve times,” implying that Menendez had been a reluctant witness. But the prosecutors would not have praised him if that were the case. They also spoke highly of him during the trial, which Dwyer and I covered in 1981 and ’82. In fact, Menendez was simply being helpful to prosecutors by appearing before the grand jury to explain financial records and other information as needed. Some of his dealings as a public official have since been questioned-and voters should consider if he has lived up to his youthful ideals.

But facts don’t matter when political partisans want to invent an alternative reality. That is why traditional journalistic skepticism will be needed more than ever as the fall elections approach.

Published in the 2006-09-22 issue: 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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